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Ed. Magazine

Do We Need Happiness Teachers?

After a trip to meet with the Dalai Lama, an Ed.L.D. student says we do
Brendon Chan with the Dalai Lama
Ed.L.D. student Brendan Chan meeting the Dalai Lama
Photo: Courtesy of the Office of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

In late April, Brendan Chan, a second-year Ed.L.D. student, got the opportunity of a lifetime: He traveled to Dharamsala, India, to meet with the Dalai Lama. Chan was part of a delegation connected to the Leadership & Happiness Laboratory, run by Arthur Brooks at the Harvard Kennedy School. After Chan returned to Cambridge, he sat down and talked about the visit, the lab’s tie-in with his Ed.L.D. work, and his lasting feeling of calm.

What was your initial reaction when you learned you'd be included on this trip?
I felt incredibly grateful, as I knew it would be a life-changing experience. It’s not lost on me how rare the opportunity is and how few people are afforded the opportunity. What I didn’t know at the time is just how powerful and rich the experience would be.

What was the trip about? 
The schedule was built around two sessions that we had with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, around conversations related to transcendence, love, and spiritual consciousness. We visited a nunnery in the greater Dharamsala area. We meditated with Tibetan Buddhist monks. We held a debate between three Western U.S. scholars and three Tibetan Buddhist monks. And the questions were unbelievable: Is suffering necessary? Where does one look to find the meaning of life? Where does consciousness reside? We also spent time on the temple grounds for his Holiness. We visited the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile and learned more about the plight and the history of the Tibetan people, and truly just got to immerse ourselves in the overall experience related to what his Holiness has built in India alongside the Tibetan people. It really was an immersion in these concepts and the lessons that his Holiness brings to not just us, but to the world, which was sort of the point of this visit. The trip wasn’t just about the 40 or so of us that got to be in the room. It was about how we take those lessons and bring them to everyone that we interact with, whether that’s through our actions or through our teaching.

Did you personally get to meet the Dalai Lama? What was that moment like?
We each got to meet him directly and shake his hand on our way out. … He is very kind, very jovial. I’ve described seeing him as sort of a surreal otherworldly experience, like when you go see the Grand Canyon or the Taj Mahal for the first time, where your brain doesn't quite process what's going on. I felt the energy the entire time that we were able to be in the room with him. And that loving and compassionate energy has stayed with me since I got back. I've had multiple people tell me that my energy feels more peaceful. At first, I thought it was just the jet lag, but this sort of calm orientation around compassion has really stuck.

Are there any lessons that you took away? 
One of the first things the Dalai Lama said was that when we hold onto suffering, we don’t leave space for other things like compassion, love, and kindness. That lesson has stuck with me in the form of a question: What am I not leaving space for in my life? Holding this idea in mind has allowed me to get better at letting things go so that I can leave room for what’s most important to me, which is being compassionate and kind to myself and to others. 

Also, one of the biggest lessons that the Dalai Lama imparted was that leaders tend to be focused on narrow interests, the bottom line growing their organization, and running their day-to-day teams, but we can widen our focus as leaders and include that focus to cherishing others' wellbeing as the foundation of all happiness. That invitation to widen our focus as leaders is incredibly, incredibly powerful. My dream is that both the work that I do continues to grow in terms of its impact, in terms of its reach, in terms of its scope, but also the way in which I do it is widened as well.

How does your Ed.L.D. work tie into the Leadership & Happiness Lab?
There’s a core course in the Ed.L.D. curriculum called Sector Change. I built my Sector Change project around the Leadership & Happiness Lab’s work, which is really about the science of happiness. I thought it was a good idea to think about happiness, and I was intrigued by the lab’s mission around how we can help more leaders see their roles as happiness teachers, meaning promoting and creating conditions for the people that they work with to be happier. 

The central course in the Ed.L.D. curriculum is Practicing Leadership Inside and Out, or PLIO, led by Candice Crawford-Zakian. The course is built around widening the gap between a stimulus and our response as leaders. With a large focus on self-transformation, PLIO has overlapped with the lab’s focus on the science of happiness in powerful ways. PLIO has helped me make sense of how being a healthier, more compassionate, and happier person will translate into better leadership.

You’ve said that you like to “dream big.” Now that you have this inner calm from your trip to India, what's your big dream after the Ed.L.D. Program is over?
My biggest dreams are oriented around dedicating my life to transforming systems and structures to allow kids and communities to thrive. And that means that there’s a specific focus in my life, both around education and public education in particular, but also those that are historically and currently marginalized by our structures in this country. When I think about racial equity work, when I think about eliminating poverty in this country and around the world, my biggest dream is both that my life actually helps make a dent in those things, but also the way in which I move and do that work is more compassionate and loving and always centered more on the relationships and the joy of being in community together to drive that change.

Now, post-trip, do you think more of the lessons you took away from your time in India with the lab should be incorporated into teaching and learning?
I really believe in the Leadership & Happiness Lab’s aim to help leaders be “happiness teachers.” Wrestling with some of the biggest concepts — love, compassion, kindness, non-attachment, happiness — is a worthy endeavor for any individual, and I believe people in positions of leadership are uniquely positioned to transform systems if they become more adept at understanding and applying what we know about the science behind happiness, compassion, and well-being. My biggest hope is that we get more leaders to take up the responsibility in creating conditions to improve happiness for those they work with and serve. As Ed.L.D. is a program focused on systems-level leadership and transformation, I believe the lessons from His Holiness and from the work of the Leadership & Happiness Lab should be put to use to help make our schools and classrooms happier. I’ve talked with the team at the lab about what it looks like to bring the science of happiness into education. There’s a lot happening in higher education, but at the K-12 level, we need to start with the people that make up our school systems. Superintendents and their cabinets, school administrators, teachers, and all staff would benefit from the teachings of His Holiness and understanding the science of happiness in how they do their work.

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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